Stop equating “bossy” with leadership

And stop using the word “bossy” while you’re at it.

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Photo by Moose Photos from Pexels

Last week, I was driving my 7 and 10-year-old daughters to piano lessons when I overheard a conversation discussing some of the behavior of their friends on the playground (friends’ names have been changed for privacy reasons):

7-year old: I don’t like playing with Jane at recess. She is just so bossy.

10-year-old: I don’t know about Jane, but I have the same problem with Anna. She is always telling me what to do and changes the rules when she’s not winning. She doesn’t take turns or play fair.

Both girls together: (Sigh followed by a groan) I hate bossy people!

Me: Hmmm……This sounds like a problem. I’m just curious, but what do you when the boys act like this?

7-year-old: The boys are crazy. I don’t play with the boys. (As a mom, I’m doing a happy dance and hopeful she’ll maintain that attitude into puberty.)

10-year-old: (after a long pause for thinking) The boys are just being boys. They aren’t bossy.

Me: That’s interesting. Are the boys just not acting the same way? Or is it that boys just aren’t bossy?

10-year-old: Boys aren’t bossy, only girls.

Me: Why not?

10-year-old: I don’t know, they just aren’t.

Today I was on LinkedIn, and the following semi-famous quote showed up on my feed:

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Graphic by Stephanie Slocum, www.engineersrising.com

I started reading the comments. There were 1716 comments when I saw this on my feed, and about half of them were something to the effect of “Stop equating leadership with being bossy.” Not surprisingly, almost all of the people making that comment were men, although there were also quite a few women.

I certainly don’t want a “bossy” boss, do you? When I think “bossy”, I think of a command-and-control style of leadership. This person does what he or she wants unilaterally, and expects everyone else to fall into line, fair or not, logical or not. This person is also decisive and commanding. This is exactly the type of person I would NEVER want to work with or for.

I decided to use my trusty friend Google to see what I was missing from this definition. Here’s what popped up:

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Words like fond of giving people orders, authoritarian, controlling, dominating, and masterful appear, in addition to the less-desirable adjectives like oppressive, tyrannical, and dictatorial.

I found this definition fascinating. We have a number of male leaders of countries in the world that would meet this definition, but when was the last time you heard any of them called bossy?

In fact, some of this behavior, when done by men only, is commended. Many of these adjectives could describe a command-and-control style of leadership. Many of these words could describe men that some in pop culture idolize. I’m thinking of men like Steve Jobs or Donald Trump.

The fact remains — as my 10-year old so adequately put it — boys (and by extension men) just aren’t bossy.

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Graphic by Stephanie Slocum, www.engineersrising.com

That’s why I think all those commenters were missing the point, and why I think we should entirely eliminate the word “bossy” from our vocabulary.

To be clear, that isn’t a new idea. Organizations like LeanIn.Org have been running a “Ban Bossy” campaign since 2015. This shouldn’t be surprising since LeanIn.Org was founded by Sandberg herself.

At work, research shows that women are labeled as “bossy” and men as “decisive” for the exact same behavior. We have this Cornell study and this Forbes article discussing how these sorts of gender biases hold back female leadership at work. We have this Psychology Today article showing us how the word bossy is linked to power and status. We have this Center for Creative Leadership article which states:

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Graphic by Stephanie Slocum, www.engineersrising.com

My personal favorite was the first page of my google search which showed these two articles right next to each other in the results:

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I also enjoyed this Times article, called “11 Ways to Avoid Sounding like a Sexist Jerk — Even if You’re a Woman” which summarizes what to do instead. Not surprisingly, calling someone bossy was on the list of things to avoid.

What does this all mean?

My takeaway is that the word “bossy” has been hijacked to only apply to women. It’s a word used to demonstrate power and status. That means it’s no longer welcome if you prefer to live and work in a world where merit and competence are valued, or simply want to raise girls who aren’t afraid of being leaders in the future.

Career + Online Business Strategist | Bestselling Author | Keynote Speaker | Women in STEM Champion | Parent Working to Raise Empowered Girls

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